A man I know stopped by my cabin the other day, and I asked how he was doing. His wife had died suddenly, a few weeks earlier, and I had reason for concern. He reassured me he was doing well enough – he has several close and generous, caring friends that he talks with frequently, while he reorganizes his life. “I only break down every day or so,” he added, “this morning for instance, as I brought our grandson to school – something she always loved to do.” And then, after a moment, he added, “I’m so grateful for the 47 good years we had together; I think of those who die young, without getting those good years, and it’s for them that I feel sad.”
This gratitude for what we have been given speaks of being deeply nourished by the events of our lives. I’m concerned for those who wax nostalgic about “the good old days,” measuring the passing years with regret – reducing what had happened to a sentimental caricature of what once was, in a well-meaning attempt to honor and idealize it. This is not what is meant by honoring our ancestors – to truly honor them we invoke and appreciate their presence today, with gratitude.
There was a fable written back in the ‘80s by Spencer Johnson, called “The Precious Present” – in which a young boy gradually learns from an old man, over many years, about the most special gift he can ever receive. He asks questions throughout his youth as he struggles to understand what that gift could be, guessing at one tangible treat after another. When he has grown enough to gradually begin to understand, his friend the old man dies – and he finally realizes for himself the enormous gift of the present moment.
“When I feel guilty over my imperfect past,” he tells himself, “or I am anxious over my unknown future, I do not live in the present. I experience pain. I make myself ill. And I am unhappy. My past was the present. And my future will be the present. The present moment is the only reality I ever experience. As long as I continue to stay in the present, I am happy forever, because forever is always the present.”
I remember my own youth in the streets of Berkeley, and my political skepticism as I questioned the all-too-easy talk of cosmic abundance in the face of world poverty and hunger. I only gradually learned the wisdom of seeking sufficiency for myself – having enough, and sharing the rest. This act of generosity and inclusion, rather than privilege and exclusion, turned my attention from that distant, shining city on the hill toward my own familiar community, close by. The pleasure of this generosity, even among the impoverished, is what heals the anguish.
In the Shurangama Sutra the Buddha likened our self-defeating dependency upon tangible evidence to comprehend the intangible meaning of life to confusing the finger that points to the moon with the moon itself. Today we might say we tend to confuse the menu, which indicates the idea of the meal by describing it in glowing terms, with the personal experience of the meal itself.
A fellow I see, who works as a sous-chef in a restaurant, tells me of the great difference between the dining room and the kitchen. Guests are often unaware of the efforts that go into preparing the meal they have ordered. It would be good, he tells me, to appreciate the gardens and the pastures that produce the ingredients of the meal eventually placed before them, and how they are brought together by many culinary skills before it is delivered to their table. It’s all right there, arranged just so on their plate, ready for their nourishment.
I sometimes think this moment – this now – is like a meal placed before me for my nourishment. What brought this to me from many sources and by many people is right here, to nourish me. Our history – all history – is like what happens in the kitchen, and in the gardens and pastures of the world before that, providing the banquet that life brings to us. It’s not located in the past, it is present in every meal. Our history as well is not located in the past; it is present in every moment that we live.
There is a mountain village in Mexico, where the butterflies go to winter, and where the only social structures are the Church, the community, and the family. There, death is not thought of as a severe calamity that finishes life but as a woman who holds your hand and walks beside you, from the very moment you are born until the very end. And she does not pull you forward, nor to her, and you are not to pull back, or away. It would be best to recognize the fidelity of our dark companion as wise counsel, rather than as a predatory foe.
The fires have come to our valley, as have devastations before them, and what they have brought remains here with us today. We are reminded once again that, as sure as we’re born, someday something difficult will happen within us, and within our life. Perhaps next time there will be a tumor, a bankruptcy, a broken heart, something – and our friends will say how horrible, how unfair. But, no. All this, too, is part of who we are, and who we are is good – not horrible but instead honorable. We may think sometimes we are dying, but instead we are living a depth that we thoughtlessly call death.
For, even in our dying, we are living life well.
Jim Shere is a psychotherapist with a private practice in Glen Ellen. He is also a writer and poet, and executive director of the Glen Ellen Historical Society. You are invited to explore his website at jimshere.com.